Once upon a time, somebody must have told me that boys are easier to raise in their teen years than girls. Fairy tail inaugurations aside, I don’t believe I made this up. In fact, I think it was in reference to how horrible boy toddlers are; my relief—this vague and mysterious advisor claimed—would come in the teen years, when girls are secretive and bullying (or being bullied) and boys are pretty much just all pimples and porn. I knew I could handle that, so I suffered through my son’s terrible twos and threes in the comfort of knowing that I would be home free one day.
Well, that day certainly hasn’t arrived. My son is moody, mean, awkward, emotional, loud, hungry and every other adjective you’d assign a teenager in the throes of adolescence. In short (now that he’s taller than his mother), it didn’t get better.
Certainly I could analyze the reasons for my son’s current state of malaise, but his reality won’t change mine. On Mother’s Day a couple weeks ago (and it was a doozy… I wrapped it up with a lot of tears and a bottle of wine), my son and I came to the impasse that we’d been dancing about awkwardly for months. He announced he wanted to go live with his father, and while his sister was trying to talk him out of it, I felt simultaneously stunned and relieved. There’s a part of me that always feels like a failure, and all the literature and commentary on single moms raising sons doesn’t help. Maybe he would be better off living with his dad for these tumultuous years.
However, by the next day, my son was backpedaling. And I was feeling awful. And my ex-husband was calculating the feasibility of how this would all come about. Needless to say, this was a bell that once rung could not be silenced. As we live in the two most expensive cities in the USA (he’s in San Francisco; I’m in NYC), the costs associated with sizing up in one case and downsizing in the other are prohibitively expensive (in fact, it’s unlikely I could find a smaller apartment for less than what I currently pay for my converted 3BR; I would probably have to leave the city altogether). My ex currently works up to 15-hour days, so he might have to realign his career goals to be a hands-on dad. Those kinds of changes go beyond what my adolescent kid can possibly process in a pique of angst.
The truth is—and my ex picked up on this—that two years after his move out west, I’m just tired. I work multiple jobs to get by and I live in a hovel that is by far the worst place I’ve ever had to call “home.” I am uninspired and thoroughly exhausted. I’ve said it before: I never really understood what being a single parent was until now. As “occupied” as my ex was during our marriage and our separation, his moving across the country means I am truly on my own, 24/7. I have to worry about everything now, even if I want to make personal plans. I feel that my son is sucking up all my bandwidth and I have little time for anything else.
But when I think of him leaving—knowing that it likely would be a permanent change—my already depressed mood plummets. I struggle constantly with a sense of failure, but giving up on my son would definitely be the second biggest failure of my life (the first being my divorce; but I didn’t give up there… in fact, I probably held on too long). So, after many conversations with my daughter and several of my (incredibly supportive and patient) boyfriends not to mention my (ex) husband, I came to the irrefutable truth: I have not done everything I possibly could to get my son back on track. My belief that “this too shall pass” in terms of boy adolescents shouldn’t require this level of constant parenting along with my own circumstances driving my depression have precluded me “stepping it up” to make sure my son is on his way to being a good man as opposed to a lost boy.
I buckled in, ready to do battle. Battle for my son’s future.
Step 1.Get thee to a gym. And by “thee” I mean my son, because I certainly have no time at all to get my own fat ass through a work-out. I found a parkour gym not too far from where we live. More importantly, it’s not too expensive. I rarely have extra money to “splurge” on the kids; the child support typically goes for basics (housing, clothing, etc.). Gyms can be really expensive, with “use it or lose it” policies, meaning any lesson can be made up but it will still be paid for even if you cannot arrange a make-up. Sometimes school or illness or other activities (he’s also in baseball this spring) get in the way of a regularly scheduled class. This gym is pay-as-you-go, and I can sign up for a class minutes before it starts, if there’s a spot open. Best of all, my son qualifies for most of the adult classes, meaning he’s seeing grown up men working out (and having more male role-models—be they teachers or casual work-out buddies—is something my son needs in his life, of that I am sure).
Step 2. No more computer. Period. The tipping point came at the fore-mentioned gym. I had taken him for his first class (a 10-16 age group), and he moped his way through it because he was by far the oldest (and largest) kid in the class. The second class was 13+, so I thought he would be more amenable to it. I also had a school-related errand to run (I am class parent of my son’s class), and it would take me at least 90 minutes to complete this activity. I gave him a kiss and headed off with a large package in tow for the subway. I assumed my son would stay at the class and I would meet him at home in a couple hours. Well, you know what they say about people who assume (i.e. you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”). Not five minutes later, he texted me that the second class was too “old,” that he was “shy” and he was heading home. Call that the final straw. My proverbial camel finally broke its back. While I have gone back and forth on the computer before, knowing that my previously sociable son was no longer capable of facing any kind of adversity (this was not the first time he was intimidated in public and abandoned an activity), I now believed that his constant foray into e-sports was not working out. For him or for me.
Step 3. Stay strong and don’t budge an inch. This was probably one of the worst weeks I have suffered as a parent (and keep in mind that I’ve been parenting for more than two decades now). One of my boyfriends, who lovingly brought me lunch this week when I didn’t have any time to see him, says my son is “bucking,” and I just have to stay on him. He has no children of his own, but he has 13 godchildren and he is active (and the key disciplinarian) in all their lives. He was also pretty naughty himself when he was a teen, and he credits his own mother (also a single mom) with riding his “bucking” boy very hard until he curbed a lot of bad behaviors. Not a day went by this week when my son wasn’t sullen and belligerent and threatening. I was receiving hourly texts from him, pleading for his computer back, swearing at me, offering up preposterous negotiations (e.g. he would skip school if he didn’t get computer time), and generally trying to wear me down. A point came when I was thinking how much easier it would be to have my husband’s life: 15 hour days working for a multi-national under constant stress. I was putting in 16 hour days between my work and my kid, because I now understood…
Step 4. Watch him as though he was a toddler again. My concern isn’t that my son is addicted to League of Legends or that he’s hormonal. My concern is that these habits will dictate who he’ll be not just in two years, but in 20. Boys without tough love take far longer to get it together maturity-wise than those whose moms (even more than the dads) capitulate. I’ve always said, the goal isn’t to raise great children; the goal is to raise competent adults. My daughter can take care of herself, from personal to professional and everything in between. She’s on the path she is because of all the hard work I put in when she was an adolescent. Of course, I had physical back-up from her dad then (because we were still together). But now I have to do it myself, with some virtual back-up from my son’s dad (they Skype every Sunday). Thus it is that I am sitting through as many of his sporting events as my work will allow; I am going to his gym and watching him (as opposed to reading a book); I volunteered for his science field trip this week (maybe there is love left in the Universe, because I spent the first nice weather day we’ve had this month rambling about Central Park). Wherever my boy is now, I am close behind him. Years ago, I had to make sure he wasn’t tripping and falling and smashing in his head. Now, I am making sure he isn’t tripping and falling and losing his head. To quote the animated film, Mulan, “Somehow I’ll make a man out of you.”
So, I am more exhausted and burned out than ever. My weight is back up, and I’m completely stressed out. But it’s a variation on the stress I had because my efforts seem to be working, albeit incrementally. Right after the field trip this week, I heard my son utter four words I haven’t heard in quite awhile: “I love you, Mom.”
I’m sure this chapter has not ended, but one thing I do know… Tough love. It hurts. But it helps. Stay strong!